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Colts’ training camp preview: Defensive line

Kendall Langford #90 and Robert Mathis #98 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrate during the game against the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium on January 3, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – An off-season of major change ramps up July 29 when the Indianapolis Colts report to their Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center for the start of training camp.

Over the next several days, we’ll take a positional look at how general manager Chris Ballard has structured the roster. Is the team equipped to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 or will it miss the postseason in three consecutive seasons for the first time in more than two decades (1988-94)?

Today: Defensive line

Projected starters: DE Kendall Langford, NT Johnathan Hankins, DT Henry Anderson

Backups: DT Hassan Ridgeway, NT David Parry, NT Al Woods, DT T.Y. McGill, DT Grover Stewart, DE Margus Hunt, DT Josh Boyd, DE Jhaustin Thomas

  • Man in the middle: Hankins was Ballard’s most expensive off-season investment – a three-year contract that could max out at $30 million. The former New York Giants standout understands the accompanying expectations: provide difference-making talent from the interior of the line

“Just (be) a guy that knows how to stop the run and how to affect quarterbacks,’’ Hankins said, quickly adding no one should expect him to be a one-man show.

“This is not really a one-man thing,’’ he said. “You need all 11 from the linebackers to the safeties to the defensive ends to be all on the same page. Overall just trying to be a better defense stopping offenses, trying to get the ball in the offense’s hands as much as we can and being one of the dominant defenses in the NFL.’’

Hankins is a big man – 6-2, 325 pounds – and created some big waves during the off-season while chatting with NFL Network. The revamped Colts defense, he claimed, is “probably the best defense in the AFC.’’

He declined to backtrack.

“I think we’ve got the right guys,’’ Hankins told the local media. “We’ve just got to put the work in and continue to grow. It’s going to take some time, but you always want to have high standards and set high goals.’’

Hankins brings a solid resume to Indy. During his four-year stint with the Giants, he started 41 of 52 games. He was a force against the run and flashed occasional pass-rush skills – seven sacks in 2014.

Make no mistake: Hankins must be a major factor in upgrading the Colts’ work against the run. Since the arrival of Chuck Pagano and his defensive background in 2012, the defense has hardly distinguished itself. It has ranked 18th or worse against the run each season, including 25th in each of the last two years. The run defense was especially ineffective late last season, yielding 185 yards against Houston, 210 at Oakland and 182 in the season finale against Jacksonville.

Teammates are eager to line up alongside the high-priced acquisition.

“He’s a huge dude, and for as explosive as he is, I mean you don’t see that with many guys that big,’’ Anderson said.

“Big, athletic guy who’s very stout,’’ offered Langford. “He has some wiggle to him. He’s agile. He can get to the quarterback.’’

  • Regaining health?: The D-line might finally be a strength, not a liability. Langford was the defense’s most efficient player in 2015 after being signed as an unrestricted free agent. Anderson was in the midst of earning all-rookie recognition before a knee injury ended his 2015 campaign. Hankins was a 16-game starter a year ago for a Giants defense that ranked 10th in the NFL in fewest yards allowed and 2nd in fewest points.

There’s proven depth in Parry (32 straight starts at nose), Ridgeway, McGill, Woods and Hunt.

“I feel great about it,’’ Langford said. “. . . (but) it’s on paper, so that really doesn’t mean anything. The game still has to be played.’’

More to the point, Langford and Anderson must prove they’re up to playing the game. Each must put injury concerns behind him.

Langford saw his streak of 135 consecutive games played – the league’s longest among defensive linemen – end last season due to a balky right knee. He underwent surgery during training camp to address a “chondral defect,’’ and while he returned to the field, he never regained his form and finished the season on IR.

Langford’s rehab kept him off the practice field during the recent off-season work, but he’s optimistic he’ll be ready for a bounce-back season.

“One guarantee I can say is that I’ll be ready come season, training camp, all those good things,’’ he said in April. “I’m moving in the right direction.’’

During the off-season work, Anderson described himself as “100 percent’’ after dealing with injuries his first two seasons. His rookie season ended when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the ninth game against Denver. He appeared in 11 games last season while still rehabbing the left ACL, but seldom was a factor. His comeback further impeded when he tweaked the same knee in mid-October.

And now? “The body feels totally fine,’’ Anderson said. “I feel like I’m advancing with the rest of the team. It’s not rehabbing and feeling like I’m behind everyone.

“This year is totally different.’’

We’ll see.

  • Worth noting: Hankins is in line to become the Colts’ seventh starting nose tackle since 2012. We’re betting few, if any, could come up with the previous six off the top of their head. The list: Parry, Josh Chapman, Montori Hughes, Aubrayo Franklin, Antonio Johnson and Martin Tevaseau.

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